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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 11d - After the Battle

It was of great importance to me, to have found complete understanding of the circumstances and conditions of our naval warfare at Headquarters, and to be assured that those in authority were determined not to let the suitable moment slip for the employment of all means that would lead to a speedy termination of the war.

In order to resume cruiser raids on the open sea, the auxiliary cruisersMoewe and Wolf were sent out at the end of November, the, former under the officer who had commanded her on her first cruise, the latter under Captain Nerger, and both reached the high seas without hindrance from the enemy.

The peace proposals of Germany and her Allies, made on December 12, had little prospect of finding acceptance with our enemies; but the fact that they had been made would tend to simplify the situation and, in case of refusal, to rouse the will of the people to strain themselves to the uttermost for the final conflict. There was no hope of yielding on the part of those who had recently come into power in England—Lloyd George, with Carson as First Lord of the Admiralty. Thus the die was cast in our country for the employment of the most extreme measures, which it had been Bethmann's policy hitherto to avoid.

Towards the end of the year I regrouped the High Sea Fleet and took Squadron II out of the tactical group. One ship, the Lothringen, had already been put out of commission, and another ship of this same squadron was permanently needed to guard the Sound in the Baltic and had to be relieved from time to time. Thus for one reason and another (e.g. repair work) the squadron only consisted of five, or even fewer, ships. The fighting value of the ships had decreased with age, and to take them into battle could have meant nothing but the useless sacrifice of human life, as the loss of the Pommern had already proved. The creation of a new U-boat fleet demanded numerous, efficient young men, with special technical knowledge, and these could only be drawn from the Fleet. As Squadrons IV, V, and VI had already been disbanded for similar reasons, the reduction of Squadron II was only a question of a short time, as we were bound to have recourse to their crews. The U-boat flotilla had by this time a greater number of officers than all the large battleships of the Fleet. When the two new battleships, the Baden and Bayern (with 38-cm. guns), joined up, it was possible to dispose the battleships in the High Sea Fleet in the following manner:

Baden, Flagship of the Fleet.
SQUADRON I—Vice-Admiral Ehrhardt Schmidtt.
Ostfriesland. Thüringen. Heligoland. Oldenburg. Posen. Rheinland. Nassau. Westfalen.
SQUADRON II—Vice-Admiral Behncke.
König. Bayern. Grosser Kurfurst. Kronprinz. Markgraf.
SQUADRON IV—Rear-Admiral Mauve.
Friedrich der Grosse. König Albert. Kaiserin. Prinzregent Luitpold. Kaiser.

When in column formation, Squadrons III and IV formed a division and Squadron I was divided into two divisions. These three squadrons had their headquarters in the Jade. Squadron II lay in the Elbe when, as was often the case, it was not sent to the Baltic to provide target-ships for the torpedo-boat flotillas and U-boats which practiced there, and to undertake manœuvres in common with them.

The chief duty at this time was to protect the Bight when the Fleet put to sea. During the winter the number of large battleships in the English Fleet had been materially increased, and by the spring of 1917 we should have to reckon with 38 large battleships (of which 14 had 38 cm. guns) and 10 battle-cruisers (of which 3 had 38 cm guns). On our side we had 19 battleships (two with 38 cm. guns) and five battle-cruisers whose biggest guns were 30.5 cm. In place of the Lützow, which had been lost, we had the Hindenburg.

This relative strength indicated, from a tactical point of view, the desirability of our making as much use as possible of the advantages to be derived from the short days and long nights of winter. The long nights afforded our torpedo-boats good chances of success and prolonged the time during which our Fleet could approach unperceived. On the other hand, the short days had this advantage: that we could time a battle so that our munitions did not give out and so that the enemy could not bring up fresh reserves against our damaged ships.

At the close of 1916 the idea prevailed among the commanders of our Fleet, that England, anxious about her future, and pressed by her Allies, intended to develop greater activity at sea. The fall of the old Ministers, and the change in the command of the Grand Fleet might be looked upon as steps to prepare the way for this.

It was decided that the U-boats were to carry on the campaign against commerce in accordance with Prize Law during the winter, and a number of these were detailed for special duty off the east coast of England. It was possible to connect these up with an advance of the Fleet, whenever a fair number of U-boats was ready to put to sea or had been at sea a short time. By the middle of January we had ten ready for this purpose, and they received orders, in addition to their campaign against trade, to take up two lines south-west of the Dogger Bank on a certain date, when the Fleet was to undertake an advance to the west, south of the Dogger Bank. Support by the U-boats of the Naval Corps was arranged for in the usual way. The bad weather which prevailed in January prevented the realisaton of this scheme, which was again to depend on airship scouting.

As we had to reckon on the possible failure of airship scouting within the time available for such an enterprise—boiler-cleaning in the flotillas, repairs on the wharves and the preparedness of the U-boats also influenced our arrangements—another plan was drawn up in which the weakness of airship scouting was not of such importance as to necessitate the abandonment of the enterprise on that account. This was not to be carried out until March, and was to take place during the light nights at the period of full moon— which would last until March 12.

The idea was to make a raid into the Hoofden to interfere with the convoyed traffic between England and Holland—from Rotterdam to the Thames. In the meantime unrestricted U-boat warfare had commenced on February I, but our U-boats could not get at this traffic very well. At night it was difficult for them to get an opportunity to open fire, especially when the vessels were protected, and by day the shallowness of the water made submarine attacks impracticable, especially if the accompanying ships used depth charges. As the crossing took so short a time, and moreover could be carried out by night, this traffic was exposed to no risks worth speaking of and there was a noticeable increase on this route.

Our boats were to advance to a line Schouwenbank—Galloper, make a night raid through the Hoofden, and then at 6 A.M. steam in a northerly direction to meet the Main Fleet which would follow them. The Main Fleet itself, consisting of Squadrons I, III and IV, was to lie off Braune Bank at 6 A.M., and for that purpose would have to leave the Jade at 2.30 P.M. on the previous day. It was nor expected that the enemy would notice our putting to sea in the afternoon before dusk. Success in this case depended entirely on surprise, for otherwise the steamers would simply postpone their journey. The raid by night through the Hoofden was designed to cover the whole area.

The officer commanding the scouting craft had at his disposal Scouting Divisions I, II, and IV—with the exception of two small cruisers which had to remain as vanguard with the Main Fleet —and 22 torpedo-boats. In view of the large number of boats taking part, it was necessary to choose a light night for the enterprise, so that the ships should not foul each other, and should be free to act so as to hold up the steamers.

Though the heads of the Fleet enjoyed complete independence in organising and arranging their operations, they nevertheless had to inform the Naval Staff of them. This was imperative, if only because all information was collected and we might consequently receive valuable hints in good time. In this case it was especially important for us to know whether there was any news of the Anglo-Dutch traffic, and if so, what. The remark in my orders to the effect that the enterprise was to be carried out even if air-scouting were lacking gave rise to direct intervention on the part of the All Highest, who declared we were on no account to do without air-scouting.

The stormy spring weather made it extremely doubtful whether we could carry out the plan under these conditions, and in fact, when the time fixed for the enterprise arrived, the weather was quite unsuitable for airships and thus the scheme collapsed.

In a petition to the Kaiser, I clearly showed that from a military point of view my plan was practicable, and urgently requested him to withdraw his restriction, pointing out that such a restriction even in one direction only, would paralyse the power of a leader to carry out an enterprise which he had carefully planned, and which was well within the scope of the Fleet. The only reply I received was that the order had been issued after due consideration and must stand. I did not carry away the impression that when this decision was arrived at the Chief of the Naval Staff had presented the point of view of the Fleet with sufficient emphasis to dissipate the Supreme War Lord's , fears—which was a pity. These fears were probably due to the idea that now that our ultimate success was entirely dependent on the results of the U-boat campaign, there must be no deviation from the course on which we had embarked, or any risk incurred which might force the Fleet to give up its support of the U-boats, before the goal had been reached.

It must be admitted that in principle these considerations were sound, for events might occur—e.g. the loss of the U-boat base in Flanders—which would confront the Fleet with tasks for which it would require all its strength. On the other hand, there was the consideration that every successful fight stimulates the confidence of those who take part in it. In a Fleet there are numbers of men who, in a certain sense, are merely onlookers in a fight, who are unable to join in as individuals, as soldiers do on land, and thus develop each man's pride in having "done his bit." On the other hand, in a sea fight, perhaps to a greater extent than anywhere else, the intervention of an individual may have a decisive influence, if he has the presence of mind to ward off some great danger by resolute and skilful action, and thereby save the whole ship and her crew and ensure victory for his side.

So long as there is no actual fighting, these men, who take no immediate and active part, are very apt to criticise the initiative and resolution of the leaders of the Fleet and of individual ships. They want no cravens at their head, for they know that cowardice in their leaders may prove fatal to themselves and because each man feels in a measure responsible for the ship to which he belongs. When battle is once joined, ship against ship, each man's strength must be strained to the utmost, whether he be a member of a gun-crew or a stoker, a munition man or a man on look-out duty who gives timely warning of the course of a torpedo. Cooperation on the part of all these, of whom no single one can be dispensed with, is absolutely essential in an action if success is to be achieved.

The Fleet had little rest in 1917, even though the success of its activities was barely apparent. It found expression in the effect of the U-boat campaign, for the work of the Fleet was from that time onward chiefly directed to the support of the campaign.

The U-boat could only prove effective against British trade if the boats succeeded in going to and fro unharmed between their base and their areas of activity. To achieve this, strong opposition on the part of the enemy in the North Sea had to be overcome. This opposition was planned on a large scale. We know from Lord Jellicoe's own lips that at the beginning of 1917 he had ordered 100,000 mines to be placed round the Heligoland Bight, and we were very soon to feel the effect of this. The belt of mines which curved round from Terschelling to Horns Reef grew closer and closer. At the same time our mine-sweeping operations were subjected to closer scrutiny on the enemy's part, so that very often, by the sowing of fresh mines in the path we had cleared, the work of many days was undone in a single night. As the enemy laid his mines in concentric circles west of the line originally laid, the area over which our mine-sweepers had to work was constantly enlarged. Unhappily we never had the luck to catch the enemy mine-layers at their work, which they probably mostly undertook when darkness shielded them, at any rate when the mines were not laid by submarines.

To explain what might appear to be crass incompetence on our part, we may remark that, so far as we know, the enemy's efforts in this direction met with little more success. I remember that on the return of one of our submarine mine-layers I was told that this boat had laid her two thousandth mine on this journey. How many difficulties she must have overcome before that work was achieved! The cruiser Hampshire, on which Lord Kitchener went down, was sent to sea in a heavy storm in the belief that in such weather little danger was to be apprehended west of the Orkneys from mines or U-boats; and yet one of our boats (Lieutenant-Commander Curt Beitzen) had been at work, and had made use of the opportunity provided by the bad weather to lay the mines to which this ship was to fall a victim. We, too, often noticed that after stormy days, when the mine-sweepers' work had to be interrupted, new mines had been laid in places which had been cleared just before the storm began.

Another difficulty that our mine-layers had to contend with was that they had to lay their mines quite near the British coast or the entrance to ports, where closer watch was kept and defence was more effective than in the open North Sea. There, at a distance of 100 sea miles from Heligoland, we had to keep watch on what was being done at night on the extreme edge of the wide curve which stretched from the East Frisian coast right up to Jutland. The great distance at which the mine-sweepers had to work made it necessary for us to send a strong protective force with them, for fear they should be surprised by a squadron of destroyers, which were greatly superior to them in armament and speed, and would make short work of them. A few attempts at catching them unawares had been made by the English, but these had been so half-hearted that our boats had got away with very slight damage and loss. After we had opened fire, the enemy ships soon gave up the pursuit.

We could, however, not rely on the mine-sweepers getting off so lightly on every occasion. The more the English felt the unpleasant effects of the U-boat campaign, the more they would be likely to make great efforts to combat the U-boat danger in all its manifestations, wherever they had a chance. Only our light cruisers could afford effective protection to the mine-sweepers, because their guns were superior to those on the English destroyers. Just so many torpedo-boats were assigned to them as appeared necessary for their protection from submarines. If we had had to protect the mine-sweepers by torpedo-boats alone, we should have had to employ the latter in greater numbers than was compatible with their other duties. From the very beginning of the war the importance of the work of mine-sweepers was recognised, and much time and care were devoted to developing these flotillas and equipping them with increasingly better material.

Instead of the old boats that had been turned out of the torpedo service, which found a place in our first mine-sweeper flotillas, and the trawlers which were used provisionally to assist in this work, new craft were built specially designed for mine-sweeping; moreover, they were built in such numbers that in the course of 1917 almost all the mine-sweeping divisions were provided with them. We also had large demands for similar craft from the Baltic, where they were needed to enable us to maintain commercial traffic, and the more so as the offensive activities of the Russians were entirely devoted to mine-laying operations.

The development of seaplane activity in the North Sea afforded good support to the mine-sweepers. At the beginning of the war the number of really efficient seaplanes was so small as to be of no value, for the only seaplane station we then had at Heligoland boasted but five machines, to which after a time three more were added. Both pilots and observers had to be trained. Thanks to the energy of those at the head of the Air Service (Rear Admiral Philipp as Chief of the Naval Air Service and Captain Brehmer as officer commanding the North Sea Seaplane Division), this arm of the service developed tremendously and rendered us invaluable services as scouts, thereby relieving the fighting forces on the water of a great burden.

Bases for seaplanes were constructed on the North Sea at List (Sylt), Heligoland, Norderney, Borkum and, in addition to these, at Zeebrugge and Ostend. Further, the small cruiser Stuttgart was arranged as a seaplane carrier, after the necessary experiments had been made on the auxiliary cruiser Santa Elena, and when, as the flying machines were perfected, it seemed desirable not to confine their activities to the coast of the North Sea, but to make use of them at sea as well. This development of flying became necessary, and was encouraged by the urgent need of the mine-sweeping service.

Thus the requirements of the U-boat campaign demanded many sided service from the Fleet; this applied more particularly to officers and men, for in addition to the existing Navy a second one had to be created for submarine warfare, one which had to be developed out of the old Navy sailing on the water, and which was dependent on it in every respect, although it represented an absolutely new creation.


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